CHILES in the eye of the storm

Published Sept. 20, 1992|Updated Oct. 12, 2005

His day typically began with a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call at the Biscayne Bay Marriott in Miami. Each morning he slipped the same hurricane relief outfit over his tall, thin frame: a plaid shirt, khaki pants. In the hotel lobby he would stop to get orange juice and a muffin from a breakfast cart and, for lunch, some peanut butter crackers from the gift shop.

Then he would climb into a car with his press secretary and venture into towns deprived of food, water and shelter.

This is how Gov. Lawton Chiles took on Hurricane Andrew, day after long day.

For two weeks after the storm, he spent every day in the disaster zone, watching people pick through the rubble of their mobile homes, talking to relief workers who begged him for baby food, diapers, refrigerated trucks, trash removal, building supplies. He saw firsthand the disaster that followed the storm _ towns going days without food, understaffed emergency shelters, a chaotic outpouring of donations, a communications system so hopelessly damaged that his own car phone didn't work.

In the aftermath, Florida's governor came to believe that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is not able to manage such emergencies and that the American Red Cross is not equipped to provide shelter from such a storm.

He now believes no state has adequate resources to cope with "the big one." Before the next one, he says there should be a national disaster plan designed to call federal troops immediately to such catastrophes.

In "a bad hurricane, I don't think there's any doubt about it. The military, in the post Cold War era, should be tasked for this," he said in an interview over breakfast last week.

"I've got some beautiful satellite photos that I had NASA make," he said. (See photos, 8D)

"Anybody could look at them the next day and say this is a massive disaster. Even on the ground, I couldn't realize that the next day, because I physically couldn't see it all.

"This looks like a tornado _ that's what I kept telling myself." And if it's a tornado, he kept hoping, the destruction can't extend much farther. But it did.

"A mistake I won't make again'

Hurricane Andrew tossed Chiles himself into the eye of an ensuing political storm. First he was blamed for the ill-prepared state response. Then he was credited with coaxing Congress last week to approve $3-billion more for hurricane relief than President Bush had requested.

Overall, Andrew has not helped the governor's image. It left a widespread impression that in the wake of a disaster, Lawton dawdled.

Three critical days passed between the hurricane and the governor's written request for federal troops who had been standing by with meals, kitchens and tents.

The White House deflected criticism from Bush by blaming Chiles for this delay. Hours after the storm, administration sources told ABC News, the president offered Chiles an Army battalion, but he declined help _ and had to be pressed three days later to make that request. Marilyn Quayle repeated this accusation at a campaign stop, saying "we begged him" to request troops.

Many citizens also blamed Chiles. In a New York Times poll last week, only 39 percent of Florida voters rated the state response to Hurricane Andrew as adequate. Dade County residents, despite Chiles' daily presence there, gave the state poorer marks than the Army, the Red Cross, FEMA and insurance companies.

To the dismay of some aides, Chiles has declined to counter the White House attacks, arguing that it makes no sense to wade into a public dispute with the president while asking the federal government to pay all of Florida's hurricane costs.

Chiles did say, however, that he doesn't remember "any offer about any battalion of troops" when he met Bush after the hurricane. He also said he interpreted Bush's general offer of help to mean that any emergency aid requests to FEMA would get to appropriate federal agencies.

"My mistake," he said, "was thinking that a request I made to FEMA, I was making from my federal government. I thought federal emergency management services _ that was the agency I was supposed to work with, that they were designed for disaster relief assistance. That was a mistake I won't make again."

To this day, Chiles says he has not seen the federal rule requiring a governor to submit a separate, written request for assistance from U.S. troops after a state has been declared a federal disaster area.

In all his meetings with federal emergency officials, "no one has shown me anything that says requests have to be in writing," he said. "And they damn sure didn't show it to me before the storm."

Low-profile visits

As a governor who previously chaired the U.S. Senate budget committee, Chiles could be faulted for not demanding available federal resources sooner. The efficacy of his personal field trips into a land without telephones could be questioned. His dedication cannot.

In contrast to Bush, who made two publicized visits to Dade County, Florida's 62-year-old governor lived there for two weeks after the storm.

He put in the longest days of his gubernatorial career, days that began on Good Morning America and lasted as late as Nightline. In between he made deliberately low-profile visits to the disaster area, accompanied only by two aides and a couple of reporters, where he sometimes talked to hurricane victims without telling them who he was. In one shelter a mother pointed him out excitedly to her child, exclaiming, "Is that Governor Quayle? That's Governor Quayle, right there!"

Chiles' acquaintance with the most financially disastrous storm in U.S. history began the Sunday night before the hurricane, which he spent at the state emergency operations center in Tallahassee. Monday night he was in Miami, dining on modern military rations and sleeping in a darkened inn which gave him a candle so he could find his bed and the bathroom.

He chose to lead Florida's hurricane relief effort as a field general, seeing for himself what was needed and relaying his findings to his staff in Tallahassee.

On roads clogged with traffic and debris, Chiles toured the disaster area with his daily supply of bottled water and crackers, stopping at city halls and shelters to talk with officials, volunteers and victims of the storm. He stopped to watch a woman salvage an antique family chair from a lost home. He watched a young man stationed at Homestead Air Force Base pull soggy uniforms from the debris of his new house and say, "We can wash these."

If homeowners said they couldn't reach an adjuster, the governor in the plaid shirt handed them a list of insurance companies' 800 numbers. If people complained that ice suppliers were price-gouging, he gave them a number for filing complaints. So many people came up to thank him for being there that he felt he couldn't leave the area, he told an aide later.

From the start, Chiles and his staff saw this hurricane caused problems they hadn't expected.

The first was communication. Andrew's 150-mile-per-hour winds had ripped out telephone lines and toppled cellular phone towers, rendering long-distance calls difficult to impossible.

By late Monday Chiles was trying to reach an old acquaintance, Bush campaign chief James Baker, for help with two unexpected problems. For want of a military transport plane, federal emergency medical relief teams had not left for Florida. And the Federal Aviation Administration had closed Miami International Airport because it lost its fence, which meant relief supplies were landing at an airport six hours away by truck convoy.

Chiles had his own unexpected problem. His car phone was useless. In parts of the disaster area, cellular phones "just didn't work, period," he said. Finally he reached his chief of staff, Tom Herndon, in Tallahassee, and Herndon called Baker.

As other problems arose, Chiles and his staff improvised. When they learned the National Guard had 5,000-gallon water tankers but no plastic jugs, they called on Zephyrhills Bottled Water and Anheuser-Busch to send water. When they heard federal medical assistance was delayed, they arranged for 30 corporate jets to bring volunteer nurses. When they saw people with donated goods streaming down U.S. 1, they set up the Florida Relief Fund.

Late Tuesday, Chiles told the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour optimistically that "we are getting good help" from Bush and FEMA, that federal troops were not needed to protect property from looters, and that the Red Cross could shelter the homeless for a while, but the state might need "some type of temporary housing" afterward.

During the next two days he amended this judgment. Following reports of continuing food shortages in Dade County's poorest communities, he visited a farm labor camp and the flattened remains of Florida City.

"Wednesday, I was in Florida City, there was no food there," he said. "Thursday, when I went to the Everglades camp, they didn't have food there then."

At a Red Cross shelter, there was a young man who had come "to help serve food or something," Chiles said, "and they said, "You're in charge of the shelter.' He about died. "What do you mean I'm in charge?' Well then, whoever told him that left. And he was in charge of the shelter."

On Thursday, three days after the president of the United States and the governor of Florida toured a disaster of unprecedented dimension, the governor called on the president for help. In writing he requested troops, not to protect property but to deliver meals and tents.

By then, "we were feeding people. Not well, not well. But food was coming, and we were providing food and water to people in this crazy way, with a lot of volunteers," Chiles said.

"So much is made out of what went wrong those first few days," he added. "Not enough is made out of what went right. Logistically this was a nightmare for us . . . especially in an area that had no communication."

Lessons from Andrew

For the state government, one thing that did go right was Hurricane Andrew's timing in the political season. It struck barely two months before the 1992 presidential election in a state vital to Bush's re-election hopes.

Bush agreed to pay 100 percent of the disaster relief costs and promised to rebuild the Air Force base in Homestead, a city left with few surviving homes and businesses. These were not small commitments. The aid package approved by the Senate and House for victims of Andrew and two lesser storms totaled more than $10-billion _ about half the federal budget for foreign aid or food stamps. Congress did not include money to rebuild the air base, however, and the White House evidently did not lobby heavily to save it.

To Florida, the potential savings is huge _ as much as $2-billion for its already distressed state budget, because states ordinarily pick up 25 percent of disaster relief costs. "The moon was in a good phase," Chiles commented with a smile.

From Andrew, the governor said he has drawn these lessons.

That the state needs to improve its plans for coping with the aftermath of a severe hurricane and increase the money in its "rainy day" fund.

That "FEMA may be well-meaning, but they have no clout in the initial phase . . . and that you've got to loudly and strongly and probably with all kinds of paper tell the White House what you need."

That military forces should be designated to respond immediately after severe hurricanes, and that state officials should know it.

That the Red Cross should not be the primary provider of emergency shelter after a severe hurricane. "I think it's got to be the military again. They've got the capability to do it. In a smaller storm, the Red Cross shelters probably work fine."

Chiles grew up in Florida, a state struck often by hurricanes. "I've been in a bunch of them," he said, and state resources were adequate in all the others.

David Olinger is a staff writer for the St. Petersburg Times.